Stephen Foley: The best prescription for pharma firms


US Outlook: It was a legal battering in the US over the depression medicine Paxil that bounced GlaxoSmithKline into setting up an online register of all its clinical trial data, regardless of whether it had pushed to have the results of a study published in a medical journal. The company had been accused of burying studies which showed the medicine was less effective or more dangerous.

The drug industry has come a long way in the six years since then, but not far enough, which was why a couple of announcements this week are welcome, if insufficient, steps towards greater transparency. On Thursday, the industry's international trade body agreed a code of practice that commits companies to publishing all late-stage clinical trials, rather than cherry-picking. And yesterday, major drug companies signed up to share some of the data from trials of experimental Alzheimer's disease treatments, so that their scientists would find it quicker and easier to judge which treatments are working.

Both developments are welcome but incomplete. The international agreement could cover all trials, not just the big Phase III studies. The Alzheimer's collaboration needn't be limited just to data on patients using placebo. Its organisers promise similar agreements on Parkinson's disease work, but it could be extended across most disease areas.

The moral case for greater transparency and co-operation is unassailable: it prevents mischief and speeds up the development of vital new medicines. The business case is also strong and getting stronger: the fact that pharma companies are all duplicating the same basic research is a waste of resources for an industry suffering relentless pressure on costs.

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